Sunday, May 4, 2014

Guest Essay From The Mound Of Sound: From Star Wars Back to Verdun

I've been updating my warfare knowledge base lately with a load of independent reading and an online course from the war studies department of King's College, London.

For those who wonder if the 21st century could be as bloody as the 20th was, what with WWI and WWII and all, here's something to ponder. When WWII was over and the dust had settled and we were embarking on Middle Class bliss, the world's population was about 2.5-billion. Today we're already at 7+ billion and steamrollering toward 9-billion or more. Think we haven't got a load of dying to do? Think again.

Foreign Policy magazine has been running a contest you'll only find in magazines like that. Contestants submit essays on "The Future of War" and readers get to vote for their favourites out of the 25-best entries. Here are a few highlights.

US Marine Capt. Jesse Sloman writes that, should America get into another major war, it'll be "lights out." Sloman says an adversary (okay, China) would go straight for America's vaunted but ridiculously vulnerable "full spectrum electronic dominance."

"...on a conventional 21st century battlefield, senior officers will have to re-learn how to conduct operations with communications and intelligence capabilities reminiscent of wars fought a half-century ago. Drones will go blind and crash as their satellite links are severed. Aircraft and ships will get lost when their Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers go dead (and their crews struggle to remember the map and compass skills they were briefly exposed to in basic training). Leaders will struggle to communicate with their subordinate units, leaving perplexed junior officers alone and exposed, with no links to higher command, facing the enemy the way their forefathers did at Belleau Wood, Bastogne, or Hagaru-ri."

Actuary Matt Wilson, author of "A System Collapse Framework for Societies" argues that, from an actuarial standpoint, we're long overdue for a major power (i.e. nuclear) war.

"The future heavily builds on the past -- a positive feedback loop process. All positive feedback processes that are stabilized (not allowed to crash) will experience a very large crash at some point in time. And if a very large crash is still suppressed, then the system (society or earth) will get stuck in the middle of a phase change. When the system finally undergoes a phase change, then everything will get wiped out. What happens when you put out every forest fire? Forests follow the same positive feedback loop process too. In the meantime, the system will sit at the edge of a cliff, unable to move forward very well. This explains Japan's economy and now the U.S. economy too. It also explains the future of war: the large crash.

Time of stability is the biggest factor in determining when a system is nearing a crash state. After a long period of stability, a big problem in one area implies that big problems are lurking elsewhere. The 9/11 shock in 2001 was our first sign of trouble. The 2008 financial crisis pushed the United States into a pre-collapse state that is being suppressed. Like Japan, the United States will not be able to get going again until it allows another great depression. The next shoe to drop could be a great-power nuclear war. Look at the connection between financial crisis and war:

1. The 1907 U.S. financial crisis was followed by World War I in 1914.
2. The 1929 U.S. financial crisis was followed by World War II in 1939.
3. The 2008 U.S. financial crisis was followed by World War III in 2015-2018?

The same build-up of problems that caused a financial crisis also positioned societies for war. Those problems are a build-up of bad ideas, bad decisions, and corruption. They build up within all sectors of society at about the same rate. So the fact that the financial sector is mostly independent of the military sector is irrelevant. A big crisis in one area just tells us that time is up.

You and everyone else you know think that a great-power nuclear war is just about impossible. In fact, it just might be the future of war."

US Air Force Lt. Col. Don Manning sees future American warfighting shaped by the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan. The American people and the country's coalition allies have had their fill. In future, America will either go very small (drone warfare) or very, very big.

In the future, U.S. policymakers will continue to feel a responsibility to respond to threats, even if they cannot convincingly articulate those threats to the American people. As a result, policymakers will continue to pursue very small, very limited military interventions where possible. Drone strikes are among the smallest of these interventions, but small footprint, low press interventions such as those currently ongoing in Djibouti, Mali, and the Central African Republic will continue to be palatable.

On the other side of the coin, America could be presented with a threat so obvious and ominous that it cannot be ignored. It is impossible to out-think the irrational, but it is plausible that miscalculation or a mistake might lead to a country like North Korea taking an action sufficiently threatening American interests in the Pacific and forcing a major U.S. response. With nuclear weapons in the mix, you can bet America's most advanced weapon systems will be put to use along with thousands of troops.

America, however, will shun interventions that are neither very small nor very large as policymakers find themselves unable to convince neither the war-weary American public nor its war-weary coalition partners to take on another fight. Any intervention requiring nation- or state-building or without a direct impact on the lives of Americans will be dead on arrival.

Iraq war vet and Yale man, Adrian Bonenberger, believes America will fall victim to its own obsession with big bucks, high-tech weaponry, just like other countries that followed that same path in the past.

We've already fought the war-after-next, and lost. Called "The Millennium Challenge 2002," it was a simulated war game designed to showcase a high-tech, integrated U.S. Navy's ability to crush smaller, less sophisticated foes (widely assumed to be Iran) in the Strait of Hormuz. What happened instead was a simulated disaster: Overwhelmed by hundreds of small groups operating according to pre-established, decentralized directives and empowered to think for themselves, the U.S. side quickly lost an entire aircraft carrier support group, as well as numerous aircraft. The notional enemies used basic radar, primitive cruise missiles, rockets, motorcycle couriers, and strategic initiative to achieve total surprise, following up their initial advantage with another wave of de facto missiles -- explosives-laden motorboats that were too numerous and speedy for the lumbering Navy ships to engage effectively.

Future planners have spent a great deal of time and energy justifying platforms like the F-22, the F-35, and the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), claiming that they are necessary to win the next war -- but they've actually been developed to fight some version of World War II.

...According to Lockheed Martin, the company that produces the F-22 Raptor, 195 planes were produced for the Air Force, of which eight were test planes, for a total of 187 operational aircraft. Each plane cost an estimated $150 million. Air Force planners seem confident that these planes can deliver air dominance at "the decisive point" in an air conflict with an enemy of equal or slightly greater strength.

But what if this hypothetical enemy -- China, Russia, some unforeseen alliance from the Middle East or Africa, united under one brutal Hitler or Napoleon's fist -- is planning on sending up 20 inferior planes for each F-22, and 20 inferior tanks to each Abrams? What if we find ourselves in a position of geographical and political isolation, bereft of allies, and facing an alliance of enemies bent on our destruction? Why wouldn't they take this approach -- the very approach we used on the ground against a technologically superior Nazi Germany, sending 15 Sherman tanks against each Tiger they fielded. Why would our future-future enemy face us on equal terms when we're apparently very vulnerable to asymmetrical, low-tech attack?

Major Daniel Sukman writes that America must prepare for warfare conducted in the homeland, something the US hasn't really experienced since the War of 1812. The major sees the need not for the military to become involved in domestic law enforcement but for the law enforcement community to become more militarized.

The U.S. military must form partnerships and work with law enforcement agencies within the United States in the area of protection. This is not a future in which the United States abandons the principle of Posse Comitatus, rather it is a future where law enforcement has a larger and more proactive role in America's conflicts.

War in the homeland is a scary thought. Outside of major terrorist attacks, for the most part the homeland has been secure since the War of 1812. Although we continue to fight the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on the Middle Class, and the War on Christmas in the homeland, the American Way of War is to play 'away games' against other nations. If we are not careful in the way we pursue unmanned and autonomous systems, that piece of the American Way of War may change forever.

Former Australian diplomat and soldier turned security consultant, Dr. David Kilcullen, foresees a future of zombie wars - wars that we think we have ended that keep returning to life, again and again.

Irregular conflicts tend to be "zombie wars" which keep coming back to life just as we think they're over. Iraq is a case in point: By late 2009, through urban counterinsurgency, partnership with communities, and intensive reconciliation efforts, U.S. forces had severely damaged al Qaeda and brought civilian deaths to the lowest level in years: Only 89 civilians were killed across all of Iraq in December 2009, down from over 1,000 per month in mid-2008, and a shocking 3,000 per week in late 2006. But rapid and complete U.S. withdrawal in 2010 -- combined with sectarian politics and the reinvigoration of al Qaeda through the Syrian war -- pulled the rug from under local communities, reviving a conflict that a succession of U.S. leaders, on both sides of politics, have been incorrectly claiming was over ever since May of 2003. Likewise, in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, Congo, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan, current outbreaks are not new -- rather, they're revivals of generations-old conflicts that keep coming back. Colombia's FARC rebel movement, for example, turns 60 in 2014. America and its allies pass -- thankfully -- away from an era of large-scale intervention in overseas counterinsurgencies, it's tempting to think that each year's crop of new irregular wars is just so much background noise that we can afford to ignore. Unfortunately, that's not true anymore, if it ever was: In an increasingly urbanized, massively connected world, where empowered individuals and non-state groups will access communications and weapons technology that used to be the preserve of nation-states and future conflicts will leap international boundaries, we ignore these conflicts at our peril.

One crystal clear lesson for future war emerges from the last decade. This is that unilateral intervention in other people's wars is not the way to go -- and neither is large-scale counterinsurgency which, though doable, is extraordinarily difficult, and far from desirable in humanitarian, financial, or political terms. Interventions, particularly counterinsurgencies, must be an absolute last resort. But ignoring future conflicts doesn't work either -- urban, zombie, irregular crime-wars, that leap national boundaries and feature non-state groups with technology and connectivity only states used to have, will spread rapidly, sucking in surrounding regions, as Syria is doing now, and as Afghanistan did before 9/11.

Finally, doctoral student and former US Army officer, Christopher Davis, says there won't be a future war for the United States, just a perpetual continuation of the war already underway.

Already, the United States has exploited these [autonmous technology] advantages to wage a war without apparent end from the sky against Islamic militants around the globe. No clear end-state can be discerned from the campaign, nor is there any official measurement of the war's progress except abstract statements about successful strikes. International borders are freely ignored and secret agreements are made with "host" governments to minimize their obstruction. These seismic changes were felt with the first generation of drones and robots. What will future generations bring?

The introduction of these weapons on a wider scale is forthcoming. Air Force enthusiasts speaking about the sixth generation of fighter aircraft speculate that it will be pilotless. Special Operations Command is pushing aggressively for new technologies to radically improve the capabilities of its operators. Combined with the insulation of the military from the general public, the relatively free hand of the president in directing foreign policy, the increasing costs of maintaining an all-volunteer military in an age of austerity, and the proliferation of threats in a globalizing multipolar world, AFMs offer the only way forward to answer the national security problems of the future.

Instead of thinking about strategy, we should be thinking about the continuation of the American way of war. This can be addressed through examining the legal and ethical implications of armies constituted in large part by autonomous fighting machines. Does shooting down a drone constitute an act of war? What about crashing it into the ground through a cyberattack? If a semi- or fully autonomous war machine commits a war crime, who is at fault? If the defined operating parameters of an AFM could lead to a war crime, is it a lawful order to program the AFM with those parameters? These questions and more touch the fundamental human component of warfare -- a feature that is increasingly distant from the battlefield.

America has already entered its last war. This war, the war unending, will be fought with ever advancing machines of all kinds. These machines will be increasingly autonomous and they will take commands from insulated bureaucracies with limited public oversight. Policymakers will be less timid about their employment. The foundations for this war have already been set in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. As the last Islamist terrorist draws his final breath, against whom will these machines be pointed next?


  1. Boy do I remember "The Millennium Challenge 2002".

    Retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper commanded the Red Team and utterly exposed the asinine group think of the DoD to the point where the exercise was stopped and restarted with the Red Team forced to essentially only do what the DoD told them they could do. The whole thing was a perfect demonstration of Carlin's oxymoron and presaged many aspects of US bungles, miscalculations, missteps and idiocy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  2. In my war studies course I went back through the US military's counter-insurgency field manual, FM3-24, and the RAND Corp's report, "How Insurgencies End," only to shake my head in wonderment how, in Afghanistan, we ignore every bit of doctrinal wisdom about insurgencies going back to Caesar. Even the field manual annexes the writings of T.E. Lawrence but the way NATO/ISAF carried on you would have thought they'd never heard of him.

    We fought our war in Afghanistan - the heavy firepower, conventional war of tanks and artillery and strike fighters - leaving the insurgents to wage their war, the political war, largely unmolested.

    The emerging consensus does indeed seem to be that the Western forces should steer well clear of insurgencies from here on in. We're back to the post-Vietnam syndrome. As with that earlier conflict we're leaving behind a government too corrupt to survive for long that's weakened further by the dependency on Western firepower that we instilled in them. The central government in Kabul can't begin to afford to fund the Afghan National Army. When the foreign money runs out - and it surely will - that army will probably break down into constituent ethnic militias just in time for resumption of the civil war we so rudely interrupted.

    1. And thus, the ineluctable repetition of history in Afghanistan, Mound, that the West chose to ignore when it started its futile war there.